Darkness on the Edge of Town- This album is raw, painful and grim.

Aaron Gillie

The more realistic, less optimistic side of Born to Run, this album is raw, painful and grim. It’s stark honesty and brutality is what makes it so powerful. Between ’75 and ’78 Springsteen had disappeared and music fans began to ask what had happened. In the space of those years he had grown up and his views were more mature and certainly more bleak than before. The album:

Album Rating: 4/5.

Track 1. BADLANDS.

The title was taken from the Martin Sheen movie of the same name which was inspired by the Charles Starkweather homicide (also an influence on his ’82 song Nebraska). This song, however, is not about Starweather or murder or death. Despite it’s somewhat bleak title this is perhaps one of the most hopeful songs on the album. Essentially, Springsteen says this is the world we’re in. This is it in all its ugliness. What will we do about it? It’s such an ominous song and begins just so. “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland.” Like Thunder Road, it opens like directions in a movie script and sets the song up beautifully. There is no real story and no real character. The singer is describing things to us and in an excellently defiant way. He is confused and battered by his world, claiming to be “caught in a crossfire I don’t understand.” In spite of this, he remains defiant and adds with a wail heard best in his ’78 live shows: “But there’s one thing I know for sure, girl, I don’t give a damn”. The first verse introduces the setting of the song (a desolate world) and builds up brilliantly to the chorus. The way he sings with such calm tension and the way the drums build and build until the final release of the chorus is fantastic. This is the very first Springsteen song I ever heard and as soon as I heard him scream “Badlands” I was instantly transformed. It’s the best chorus he has written I believe and easily one of his best songs overall. In the second verse he begins to impart some knowledge and wisdom about the slavery that the averge working man goes through and how he understands it. “Working in the fields, that’ll get your back burned, working ‘neath the wheel, that’ll get your facts learned, baby I got my facts learned real good right now.” The hope in the song comes through in his rebellious cries in lines such as “I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the faith that could save me, I believe in the hope”, “I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me, I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these badlands”. He even takes a stab at the richer classes with a line taken and altered from his unreleased song Rockaway the Days (Tracks): “Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be kings and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.” As the song ends, Springsteen reminds us that “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” and it fades out with the breathless repetition of “badlands”. Rating: 5/5. Best Lyric: ”Don’t waste your time waiting.”

Track 2. ADAM RAISED A CAIN.

Springsteen gets biblical here, opening the song with his (or his characters’) baptism. His vocals have the same raw and gruff strain that they had in Backstreets but this time he explores the sins of the father and parental relationships. Unlike his previous album which used the theme of escape as it’s moodboard, this song is all about how love can trap you, especially unconditional and unbreakable love. The cruel poetry in the first verse declares that he and his father were “prisoners of love, a love in chains”, showing that their bond was inescapable. They would be forever connected through their blood, thorugh their feelings and through their obligations to one another, even though they may not see eye-to-eye. They have “the same hot blood burning in [their] veins”. The chorus bellows out “Adam raised a cain” repeatedly to emphasize properly the fact that the worlds first murderer came from the worlds first sinner. As he explains in the last verse “you’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past.” The song is about how evil runs in your blood and in your family and explores, on a subtle level, how the thing you may hate and disagree with (his father) is the same thing you grow up to become. This is put forward in the line “You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames”. The musical arrangement is on top form here. The electric guitar really is fantastic and sounds so dangerous and so tense that the song’s message is with you even before the lyrics start. Springsteen sounds like a man posessed on this track and his closest song to the metal genre, although with more sophistication. The song is summed up in the title: Adam raised a Cain. The sinner gave birth to sin. Haunting. Rating: 4/5. Best Lyric: “Well Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain,/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for someone to blame.”

Track 3. SOMETHING IN THE NIGHT.

This is very, very similar to Adam Raised a Cain, in themes at least. It’s about being brought into the world with nothing and starting at the bottom, having to work to move up a level. Many of Springsteen’s songs deal with the sociological theory of status frustration and this is one of them. Like so many songs he’s written, the protagonist is using his car as a means of escape, this time from his head, not his town. “I’m riding down Kingsley, figuring I’ll get a drink, turn the radio up loud so I don’t have to think.” Even though the music is very strong on this track (in particular, Max Weinberg’s restrained drumming) it is Springsteen’s own ghostly wails at the start that gives this song its etheral and frightening feeling. It’s a warning, even before any words are sung. The second verse is comprised of his most defeatest mind-set and almost sounds like he’s sulking. “You’re born with nothing and better off that way, soon as you got something they send someone to try to take it away.” This is most likely a reference to the ruling class or the government and could be an allusion to taxes or the economy. It depends on your viewpoint. The bridge to this is lyrically very similar to lines on the song Darkness on the Edge of Town in the way it talks about shame and not being able to run from your past. “Nothing is forgotten or forgiven” he warns, and then to confirm he is talking from personal experience adds, “I got stuff running ’round my head that I just can’t live down.” Enter more hauntingly eerie wailing. A slow song that’s half way between Adam Raised a Cain and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Rating: 3.5/5. Best Lyric: “When we found the things we loved they were crushed and dying in the dirt/ We tried to pick up the pieces and get away without getting hurt.”

Track 4. CANDY’S ROOM.

Who is Candy? A lover? A prostitute? A girlfriend? A cheater? It’s never made explicitly clear. She’s definitely beautiful though and definitely knows it. Springsteen admits that “Strangers from the city call my baby’s number and they bring her toys” and we are led to believe that he is her boyfriend and she loves him despite her other offers. It’s more likely, however, that the protagonist is merely another admirer who refuses to believe he means nothing more to her than any of the others. He could be deluded when he whispers to the listener “When I come knocking she smiles pretty, she knows I wanna be Candy’s boy.” She could have the same mythic power that the woman from She’s the One posessed as she certainly has control over him and her other “boys”. He does know her though, and observes “There’s a sadness hidden in that pretty face, a sadness all her own” which indicates she does not open up to him or anyone else. This, to me, is evidence that they are not in a serious relationship, perhaps only a sexual one. The lyrics go on to describe how when they kiss “Blood rushes through my veins, fire rushes towards the sky”. He continues to say how he gets lost in her eyes and how he understands everything when he’s with her, using the hyperbole “When I hold Candy close she makes those hidden worlds mine”. Although he is fully aware of his large male competition he seems delieriously confident that she loves him completely and has this to offer: “She has fancy clothes and diamond rings, she has men who’ll give her anything she wants but they don’t see what she wants is me.” He adds he’ll “never let her go”. Once again, it’s Max Weinberg’s drums that stand out on this track, beginning incredibly controlled and quiet and building up into an explosion of sound that is matched only be Sprignsteen’s vocals which are perfetly tuned in to rock and roll here. Rating: 5/5. Best Lyric: “She says ‘Baby, if you wanna be wild, you got a lot to learn/ Close your eyes let them melt, let them fire, let them burn’.”

 Track 5. RACING IN THE STREET.

Along with the title track and Something in the Night, this is one of the slower songs as well as one of the bleakest. It contains all of Springsteen’s famous themes: cars, girls, friendship, rejection and escape (or the failure to do so). The first verse is driven only by Springsteen’s vocals and Roy Bittan’s expertly precise piano. It is also the most typically masculine verse all about how he and his partner Sonny built a car “straight outta scratch”. The opening lines are also semi-autobiographical. “I got a ’69 Chevy with 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor”. In real life, his first car was a ’57 Chevy with dual, four-barrel carbs, a Hurst on the floor and orange flames. The piano is then invaded by other instruments that keep the song’s steady pace while adding to its volume and excitement. Though not my favourite of his songs, probably the worst on the album in my opinion, it does boast an excellent use of imagery, particularly when describing his girlfriend (who he ‘won’ in a race) sitting on the front porch “with the eyes of one who hates for just being born”. Such imagery gives this song strength but ultimately, to me, it is bland and most suitable for background listening. Most of the time, Springsteen elevates his female love interests to unreachable heights, portraying them as beaming angels of happiness who exude control and power and beauty. The nameless girl in this song however is desperate and miserable and “cries herself to sleep at night”. It’s no wonder she’s miserable, after being taken away by the protagonist she loses her youthful optimism and realizes that “All her pretty dreams are torn”.  His writing boarders on sexist and he has been accused of writing 2D female characters but, of course, he has never claimed to be able to write for them. On the whole, the song is very good and I haven’t particularly gone into much detail about it because it’s not a specialty of mine, not like others on the album. Also, the fact that the title is taken from the song Dancing in the Street bothers me somewhat, not because of theft, but because I just don’t know why. There is never reference made to it by any critics or pundits or experts. Anyway, the tune is mellow but the themes are dark and crushing. Perhaps more suited to the Nebraska album. Rating: 3/5. Best Lyric: “Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands.”

Tack 6. THE PROMISED LAND.

When I went to see Springsteen perform in Hyde Park a few months ago (14th July, 2012) this song was a real highlight. He played it towards the end of the first half of his set and brought on John Fogerty to join him. They took a verse each and the sheer power and magnitude of the song was brought out by the two American icons and global idols. Even Springsteen and McCartney’s rendition of Twist and Shout wasn’t as good as The Boss and Fogerty. This is the most defiant, optimistic and poignant songs on the album. Just as Badlands does, this opens up with a bleak view of a “Rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” although this is more obviously bleak than Springsteen’s previous song. In classic Springsteen tradition it uses the idea of automotive transport as escaping a glum town. He works in a garage all day and then at night goes off “chasing some mirage”. When the night hits he becomes a confident and powerful man stating “Pretty soon, little girl, I’m gonna take charge”. Like Thunder Road this song seems romantically linked with a woman but isn’t. The little girl he refers to, although possibly a lover like Thunder Road’s Mary, is an incidental part of the story, not it’s focus. It is primarily about leaving, achieving something, doing important things and being relevant. The chorus is Springsteen’s most hopeful when he roars out “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man” at the top of his lungs. To witness it in concert is certainly a mind-blowing thing. The second verse describes how he did his “best to live the right way”, how he got “up every morning and [went] to work each day”. But he notes how the monotony of a working life in a small town can make your “eyes go blind and your blood run cold” and sometimes he “feels so weak” he wants to explode. The explosion is not suicidal but ambition born out of frustration. He wants his explosion to spread across the world; to spread him across the world. He wants to do things, see things, experience things but he can only do it once he accepts that he’s not a boy but a man. Which he does. This is so hopeful because we know he is on his way to do something great. Three lines which really relay the song’s defiant and jubilant message are: “Blow away the dreams that tear you apart/ Blow away the dreams that break your heart/ Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and broken-hearted”.  The real heroes of this track are Springsteen’s vocals, Clarence Clemons’ sax and Gary Tallant’s base with an always steady and impressive performance by max Weinberg’s drums. Rating: 5/5. Best Lyric: “Explode and tear this whole town apart/ Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart/ Find somebody itching for something to start.”

Track 7. FACTORY.

There’s not a great deal to say about this song apart from the fact that it’s very, very good. The song is what it is. From one listen alone one can determine it’s themes, it’s back story and it’s purpose. But I’m not somebody who’s listened to it once. I’ve listened to it god knows how many times, almost everyday for the past year and I still enjoy it every time. It’s simply a song strongly based on his father’s job (one job of many) as a factory worker. The song details the monotony of factory life, how it demoralizes people and how it can break a man. The tune alone is very slow and keeps a purposely dull beat to it while the chorus repeats the word “working” three times in one line, all to hammer home the tiresome routine of factory life. He even gives the man in the song no name so as to allow all worker’s to identify with him but also to represent that he is just one anonymous face among thousands in Jersey alone. The second verse has one of the most bitter-sweet lines of any Springsteen song and easily one of the most moving. “Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life”. The man’s work place is mentally destroying him but also very physically. Despite the fact that the factory may one day kill him, the man knows that he relies on it everyday to keep himself and his family alive and well. In a poignant, bleak and upsetting final verse Springsteen explains how at the “end of the day, factory whistle blows” and the workers “walk through these gates with death in their eyes” as they all have the same problems. Then, with an eerie sense of foreboding, he ends the verse and almost the song with the line “You just better believe, boy, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight”. It paints a depressing picture but also a realistic and moving one and is a great song for the album. Rating: 4/5. Best Lyric: “Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain/ See my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain.”

Track 8. STREETS OF FIRE.

Now, the album as a whole is bleak. Some of the songs are bleak. Most of the songs contain bleak undertones. But this… this bleak beyond belief. It’s a great rock song and is vocally very similar to Adam Raised A Cain in that it is powerful and strained. The song begins with an eerie and suspense-filled organ that carries on through the entire first verse, never letting up. The tempo of both the tune and the words begins slow to build up the dreary and dark story and then it literally explodes into the chorus. Springsteen immediately takes us to presumably late night/ early morning, a time when, as Tom Waits points out in his song I Hope That Don’t Fall In Love With You, men grow anxious, angry and brooding. Or, as he puts it, The night does funny things inside a man/ These old tom-cat feelings you can’t understand”. Springsteen brings us into this twilight by opening the song with “When the night’s quiet and you don’t care anymore/ And your eyes are tired and there’s someone at your door”. He talks about how his character is clearly depressed and given up on life, especially as he want’s “to let go”. He hates his environment, stating that the “Cold walls you embrace eat at your insides”. All he can see around him are streets of fire which he is trapped in, he even says he’s stranded in them. He can’t leave the house because of these “streets of fire” ergo he can’t go anywhere in life. The guitar and the drums burst in for the chorus and continue through the remaining verses, though a little more subdued. By verse two he is wondering “a loser down the tracks” and says how he “can’t go back”. By this point I think he’s done something bad, perhaps illegal and he is ridden with guilt, as suggested by the line “‘Cause in the darkness I hear somebody call my name”, as if shouting after him, trying to catch him. It continues in an excellently dark fashion, the saddest part coming in the end when he declares “I live now, only with strangers/ I talk to only strangers”. He has no friends in the world. he is sick of life and totally alone, imprisoned by his streets of fire. Rating: 4/5. Best Lyric: “I walk with angel’s that have no place/ And don’t look at my face.”

Track 9. PROVE IT ALL NIGHT.

Springsteen brings a much needed sense of happiness and fun with the penultimate track. Having said that, this is not a totally light song. It’s played out like classic rock with powerful instruments, which heavily include drums and guitars, and is a somewhat fast-paced powerhouse. It opens with a declaration that the singer is “working real hard to get [his] hands clean” and that he’ll drive his girl as far as he needs to to get her “a gold ring and a pretty dress of blue”. He then adds that “for just one kiss” he’ll get these things for her. When the chorus hits he repeats that he’ll “prove it all night” for her and her love. By the second verse he wistfully states that “if dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice” but then grounds the song back into reality (and the album) by adding “But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight”. The song is a mixture of hope and despair, of love and hate but ultimately is about determination, hence the chorus. Despite his surroundings and his difficult life, the protagonist promises to prove his love to his girl, no matter what. He clearly gives the listener the image of a hard life when he accuses “them” of not knowing “What it means to steal, to cheat, to lie” or “What it’s like to live and die to prove it all night”. It’s not the best song on the album and sounds pleasantly bland, but upon further listening it becomes much more significant and another important part of the album. There is no alternative interpretation, no deeper message. Like Factory this song is what it is. Rating: 3.5/5. Best Lyric: “Everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist/ There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this.”

Track 10. DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN.

The title really sums up the song. Darkness represents all things bad; hopelessness, loneliness, being lost, being isolated, being feared, feeling fear. The edge of town represents unfamiliar territory, somewhere elusive and hostile, a baron land where nothing moves but the wind. It tells the carefully and skillfully crafted story of a man who’s wife left him and took everything with her. “I lost my money when I lost my wife” he says very matter-of-factly. It is suggested that he has no home when he says with unreasonable but admirable pride “If she wants to see me you can tell her I’m easily found/ Tell her there’s a spot out neath Abram’s bridge”. Darkness on the Edge of Town is a song about what happens when everything goes wrong. His finances, his love, his home, his self-worth. Everything vanishes when his woman leaves him. At the start of the second verse he declares that “Everybody’s got a secret/ Something that they just can’t face” which suggests that perhaps he’s done something he’s deeply ashamed of which could have been the reason his wife left. Did he hit her? Did he cheat on her? We don’t know. But he follows this line up with “Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it/ They carry it with them every step that they take” so maybe he’s been dragging this mysterious secret with him? “Till someday they just cut it loose” he says, “Cut it loose or let it drag ‘em down”. Clearly, his secret, whatever it may be, has dragged him down. As far down as he can go. Now he’s a ghost, haunting the darkness on the edge of town, a place “Where no one asks any questions or looks too long in your face”. There’s a small glimmer of hope or at least defiance when he boldly cries “Tonight I’ll be on that hill, ’cause I can’t stop/ I’ll be on that hill ’cause I just can’t stop”. We also get the message that his descent is partly his fault when he faces up to the fact he’ll have “to pay the cost/ For wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town”. His vocal performance is outstanding on this track and nearing perfection. From the low and eerily calm verses to the strained and powerful chorus’, Springsteen displays a level of previously unseen maturity and reflects a grim but truthful view of adulthood. 

Rating: 5/5 Best Lyric: “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.”

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The Light In Darkness is a collector’s edition, we are almost sold out. Less than 225 copies remain.
A great companion piece to The Promise box set, it focuses on the 1978 Darkness on The Edge of Town album and tour.
Read about the iconic concerts from fans who were there- the Agora, Winterland, Roxy, MSG, Capitol Theatre, Boston Music Hall, The Spectrum and over seventy more! And for a limited time, we are offering a Bonus color 8″ x 10″ photo from the Wrecking Ball tour with every book purchase.
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